Yolo Akili interviews poet Franklin Abbott about radical faeries, radical male feminism, and radical love.
Franklin Abbott is a radical faery, profeminist activist, and poet. He is also one of the most beloved members of the Atlanta LGBTQ Community, and his work spans several decades. As a pro-feminist he has published three anthologies on men and gender: New Men, New Minds: Breaking Male Tradition, Boyhood: Growing up Male, and Men and Intimacy: Personal Accounts of the Dillemas of Modern Male Sexuality. He also published two books of poetry, Mortal Love and Pink Zinnia, and founded the Atlanta Queer Literary Festival.
Much lesser known about Franklin is that he was in a relationship with the late black gay poet Assotto Saint and had friendships and emotionally intimate connections to a generation of black gay activists and revolutionaries, including Essex Hemphill and Cary Alan Johnson.
In this interview I sat down with Franklin to talk about radical faeries, interracial relationships and what it was like being a pro-feminist before it was even mildy popular. As expected, his answers reflected the magic and wonder that he is. Enjoy!
How do you define queer?
I think queer defies definition. I am as queer as I am exactly as I am.
Well, all right! So tell me, you have edited three anthologies on men and gender, during a time when being a male feminist was definitely not in vogue. What was your segue into gender activism and feminism? How did you first get involved and why?
I had been exposed to women’s liberation in college at the same time I was learning about Black liberation.Vietnam was going on as well, and I was drawn to the anti-war movement. I was most profoundly affected by Black liberation because of the black students I met on campus. Women student friends were beginning to question the different rules for men and women. I was questioning my sexual orientation, and as a consequence I came out at age 20 in Macon, Georgia on a small Southern Baptist campus. This was in 1970.
When I moved to Atlanta four years later and began to look for literature to help me understand gender I found women’s writings to be most helpful. I was particularly drawn to Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde.
I attended lots of women’s music events, often as one of two or three men in the audience. This all influenced my work in gay liberation which put me at the birth of the radical faerie movement and ultimately drew me to the pro-feminist men’s movement. I edited the poetry pages of the radical faerie journal RFD and the profeminist journal M: gentle men for gender justice. Neither were widely circulated. My experience with the faeries propelled me into coalition with other gender activists.
What, from your perspective, is a radical faery? And how do you feel like your experiences within the radical faery community impacted your activism?
Radical faeries are a group of mostly queer identified men who began to gather in rural settings in the late 70s and early 80s. It is a group without structure or leadership where most members espouse a highly individualized spirituality that is often earth-centered.
Gender and its expression as male or female is often called into question both philosophically and through personal presentation. There are faerie groups and gatherings all over the US, Europe, Australia, and most recently in Thailand.
I admire those who can work within or against the system but for me the art of being my faery self is my radical contribution. I cannot imagine anything more seductive or delicious. (For more on the Faeries, click here.)
Did you experience push back or “raised eyebrows” from women feminists when you began your work with gender and feminism? Can you give an example or an experience?
In the late 70s and early 80s women had every reason to distrust anyone with a penis. The radical faeries and pro-feminist men failed to change that attitude.
The immense compassion, particularly of lesbians to gay men during the horrible early years of AIDS bridged the chasm. Even though I was sympathetic with lesbian separatists, I was often treated differently in public than in private. Women who knew me and liked me sometimes were aloof if other women were around. It was a hard time for women to build bridges with men and not be seen by some as traitors.
What do you feel like your time working on gender and race privilege has taught you about white people and whiteness?
Most white people are still scared of anyone who isn’t white. That is why social integration is so important. Prejudice is always emotionally based.
Connecting with someone who isn’t like you disrupts the predisposition to marginalize/minimize qualities that are foreign to your experience. The fear that was put into me as a child can reassert itself in many situations. The relationships that I have with people who are not of my background (race, religion, class) ameliorate my reactions.
Well, Assotto was one of the most intense, complex people I ever knew. Our attraction was in some ways about how utterly different we were on all kinds of levels. What I most appreciate about him is our long talks on the phone as everyone around us was getting diagnosed and dying. Our sexual dialogue was like the language of twins that no one else can understand.
Essex [Hemphill] was reticent with white people. He was a brother to brother man on a mission. He embodied what Joe Beam and Marvin White described.
And then there was Daniel Garrett, Isaac Jackson, Craig Harris, Tre Johnson, Cary Alan Johnson, B. Michael Hunter. Some were friends, some lovers, all collaborators, some still here, some long gone. There is a moment in the communion of souls where all differences vanish. And when a black hand holds a white hand in public, history can change in an instant.
Were there ever times in which you experienced hostility from other gay folks for dating black men? How did you handle this?
I don’t think I ever lost a white friend over my intimate involvement with a man of color. I have always been good at picking my friends.
Dating anyone who is different from you in a major area–be it race, age, class, HIV status, education–adds challenges to the already difficult proposition of two men being in an intimate relationship.
Had I known this when I was younger I would have tried to find a way to be more patient in my relationships with men who were different from me and more compassionate with myself for not being able to fix everything all at once.
I believe we are lucky if we find a few men in our lives who we can truly love and who can love us back. I feel that those who limit themselves have fewer possibilities and those who judge others do so out of fear of judgement.
At the same time it is naive to assume that two men from different racial backgrounds will not have work to do understanding themselves and each other in the context of a society that is still racist at heart.
As a survivor of the 1980s, you lived through the passing of many friends. How do you think living through this period of dramatic loss of community and friends has impacted you and your peers emotionally and spiritually? What work have you done to help yourself heal and work through the pains of those losses?
I am an unwilling expert on post traumatic stress disorder.
Most gay men of my generation are traumatized by what we saw happen as so many of our brothers suffered and died. Most of us lost more than friends or lovers but a sense of safety in life and abandon in love.
The experience is different for men who came out after there were effective treatments for HIV. The losses were far fewer and unfortunately many gay men have forgotten both about the importance of working for better treatment and support for those living with HIV and ignore the rules of safer sex.
I understand why many of my peers withdrew into conventional relationships or dived into the circuit party scene. I know I am a rare bird given the losses of my generation first to Vietnam and then to HIV. I wish I weren’t so hurt but then who would I be if I shrugged it all off. If I had given up I would not be still writing, still organizing, still planting flowers, making love, cooking dinner. Grace is as simple as the next breath and as profound as the last breath.
How do you identify spiritually, if at all? What is your spiritual practice and perspective?
Spirituality for me is what connects my one with all. I have tried lots of spiritual practices, lofty and esoteric. In college I was influenced by radical progressive Christians who loved me but had a very hard time with my being openly gay (in their defense, it was just after Stonewall).
I lived in a zen house for a while and learned to meditate but found the austere life was not for me. I went on a witches’ tour of Ireland with Starhawk and ReClaiming and learned rituals in old sacred spots but found it difficult to ritualize my life with the cycles of the moon or the meaning of colors or gemstones. So I returned to my ordinary everyday life experience, and when I looked again there was nothing missing but me being present.
What nourishes and enlivens you in your life? What brings you joy?
Faerie circles, full moons, moonflowers, the Taj Mahal, Newgrange, cornbread, field peas, a lover’s caresses, the song of the soul, Sacre Coeur, poetry, wet sand under bare feet, Moss Temple, Big Sur, the sweet of melons, ripe tomatoes, fried potatoes, okra fritters, pound cake, and Angel Falls.
How do you want to be remembered?
As someone who planted flowers and sang to the moon, loved too fast and loved too soon who couldn’t care more and couldn’t care less, a delightful mess. Yes? Yes!
Originally posted on yoloakili.com.